Apparition of the Eternal Church

What do a bunch of church musicians do for fun one night after a conference? Huddle together in a dorm commons room and watch the Paul Festa documentary Apparition of the Eternal Church.

It’s an odd film for a variety of reasons, but the basic premise is Festa rounds up a group of artists, writers, and musicians and gets them to sit down and listen to Olivier Messiaen’s notorious opus Apparition de l’église éternelle.

The experiment has some mixed results, mostly a lot of screaming, yelling, trying to confess sins to make it stop, whacking the headphones with a large kitchen knife, and the like. A drag queen whose face is caked with thick, pasty makeup and smudged red lipstick mumbles sullenly through the ten minute ordeal as she comes down off of a cocaine high. “It’s like watching his body being lowered into the grave,” she said, remembering a friend.

A woman in a flaming antler hat (yes, a hat with buck antlers that were somehow on fire) found it to be just too much; “this music! Oh my God! This music!” At the close of the film, the late organist Albert Fuller recounted a surprising story regarding this work and a memorable afternoon spent in an organ swell box with another altar boy.

It’s an interesting film to say the least.

As sensational and crazily entertaining as the film is, Apparition captures what seems to be the universal experience of being completely and utterly overwhelmed by the tonal fury of this piece.

The piece itself is not all that complicated: it’s a progression of chords that alternate between dissonance (a close, “crunchy” sound) and open sonorities (major or minor; closer to what we recognize in Western music). It begins very quietly at a hushed pianissimo and swells to a forceful fortissimo C major chord at its apex before starting to fade away again, much like a vision or apparition, as the name implies.

It’s a controversial work. Unlike his fellow Frenchmen Revel and Debussy, Messiaen does not necessarily leave one humming “Claire de Lune” or “Bolero.” It’s not ever going to top Widor’s “Toccata” from Symphony No. 5 as everyone’s favorite postlude.

That all said, what I love about this piece is how breathtakingly crazy it is. It’s one of those pieces that makes the room feel as though it is alive, like the church is a living being in and of itself. The floors buzz as is if the floorboards might start lifting off at any moment. The glass window panes rattle. The air even seems to have a pulse of its own.

It is such a strangely surreal feeling to hear this played live, and because it is just so stunningly different from what we typically hear coming from the organ on Sunday mornings (at least where I am from, anyway), it lends itself quite well to imagination. What kind of scene is this thing painting? What do I hear? What does an “apparition of the eternal Church” look like?

Of course, I have been thinking quite a bit about this work over these last few days. Like the rest of the world, I sat in shock watching Notre Dame on fire. It made my soul hurt. It felt almost impossible that this bulwark of human faith and culture was as vulnerable as it indeed was. It has been on my “dream list” to go hear Olivier Latry play Apparition on the Cathedral’s grand organ.

As I watched the coverage and saw that eerie sight of the embers falling into the nave, the vast, vaulted ceilings open to a sky of fire, I thought of this piece. Not because it is scary-sounding, but because it became very clear in that moment that Messiaen was after something grander than a structure.

Unlike his fore-bearer Debussy, Messiaen was not trying to conjure an image of a massive cathedral rising and lowering from the sea. I have to imagine Messiaen was trying to paint a backdrop by which the hearer might imagine the beautiful fury that is the Church Triumphant, the Church Victorious, the Church Eternal.

Both beautiful and terrifying, like a glorious, vaulted cathedral ablaze, like death and life occurring simultaneously, like resurrection- the eternal church sounds like holy chaos.

As I reflect on yesterday’s Easter morning and all of the beauty and glory it encompassed, I wonder, too, what the resurrection sounded like. Was it quiet? Peaceful? Placid? Like the age-old hymn “In the Garden,” was it gentle? Was it in a major key, something sensible and palatable? Did it sound like a brass band perfumed with lilies? What did it sound like?

Or, maybe as Messiaen invites us to ponder, as those sinews and joints began to click back together, and the breath returned, and the stiffened, cold heart began to pound once more, and his clammy skin warmed as blood returned to his veins, was it a bit gloriously unnerving, both terrifying and beautiful?